Washington demands over $ 38 billion from opioid distributors

After reneging on a half-billion-dollar settlement, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson brought the state’s case against the three largest drug distributors in the country to court on Monday, saying they should be held accountable for their role in the national opioid epidemic.

The Democrat himself gave opening remarks before the King County Supreme Court, calling the case arguably the most significant public health lawsuit his agency has ever filed.

“These companies knew what would happen if they didn’t fulfill their responsibilities,” Ferguson told Judge Michael Ramsey Scott. “We know they knew about the harm from their behavior, because in private correspondence, company executives ridiculed people suffering from the painful effects of opioid addiction …. “

But Ferguson’s legal strategy is not without risk, as evidenced by the loss of three California counties in a similar case this month and the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling overturning a $ 465 million judgment against drug maker Johnson & Johnson.

On November 1, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson issued a preliminary ruling that counties and the City of Oakland failed to prove that drug companies were using deceptive marketing to add unnecessary opioid prescriptions and inconvenience society. The Oklahoma ruling states that the lower court misinterpreted the state’s disorderly conduct law.

In an email, Ferguson emphasized that Washington’s respective laws differ and called the cases “apples and oranges.”

Public inconvenience claims are at the heart of nearly 3,000 state and local claims against drug manufacturers, distribution companies and pharmacies. Washington is the first state’s case against pharmaceutical companies to go to trial. Ferguson alleges inconvenience and violations of state consumer protection law.

“When a case goes to court, there is always uncertainty,” he said. “However, we are confident in the strength of our business.”

The Attorney General’s Office is suing McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. in 2019, claiming they made billions from the opioid epidemic by delivering massive amounts of prescription pain relievers to the state, even though they knew or should have known the drugs were likely. find your way to drug dealers and addicts.

Ferguson is demanding tens of billions of dollars in “transformative” payments from companies to help repair the damage from the epidemic in Washington state, which includes more than 8,000 deaths from 2006 to 2017 and untold damage to families. The state is claiming $ 38 billion to pay for treatment services, criminal justice costs, public education campaigns and other programs over a 15-year period, plus billions more in damages.

The trial is expected to last about three months.

In July, Ferguson rejected an offer to pay $ 527.5 million over 18 years as “grossly inadequate.” This deal would provide the partition of Washington and its 320 cities and counties with about $ 30 million a year. Adjusted for inflation over an 18-year payout period, Ferguson said the real cost of the settlement was only $ 303 million.

Pharmaceutical companies say they cannot be blamed for the epidemic; they simply supplied the opioids prescribed by the doctors. It was not their job to review prescriptions or interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, they argued in a court transcript filed this month.

In addition, they argued, Washington State itself played a large role in the epidemic. In the 1990s, concerned that people with chronic pain were not receiving adequate treatment, lawmakers passed the Incurable Pain Act, which made it easier to prescribe opioids.

“The increase in opioid prescriptions by well-meaning physicians, supported by the government’s good faith efforts to relieve pain in residents, has in turn led to an increase in the distribution of opioids,” the companies write. “The Defendants played no role in changing the standard of care, and wholesale distributors have no experience, responsibility, or ability to anticipate good faith medical decisions made by physicians to prescribe opioids.”

Nevertheless, the state argues, the companies were required to maintain controls against the diversion of drugs. Instead, they sent so much to Washington that it was clear that it was fueling addiction: from 1997 to 2011, opioid sales in Washington grew more than 500%.

More than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed in the state in 2011, according to the attorney general – enough for a 16-day supply for each resident. In 2015, eight of Washington’s 39 counties had more prescriptions than residents.

The prescription drug epidemic is waning, and deaths from prescription opioids have halved since 2010. But since then, deaths from heroin and fentanyl have skyrocketed: deaths from heroin more than fivefold in Washington DC from 2010 to 2018, and deaths from fentanyl more than doubled from 2016 to 2018.

“This came about as a predictable result of addiction to consumers, especially those who could no longer receive or afford prescription opioids,” the state’s court filing said. “These deaths and other harms associated with heroin and fentanyl are thus an integral and tragic part of the opioid epidemic and public unrest.”

The federal government says nearly half a million Americans have died from opioid abuse since 2001.

Other opioid lawsuits based on public disorder law are pending jury in Cleveland federal and New York State courts. Judgment is expected shortly in West Virginia.

Johnson & Johnson will also face a separate lawsuit from Washington state due to appear in court next year.

Johnson & Johnson and three distribution companies are in the final stages of negotiations for a $ 26 billion settlement to settle thousands of lawsuits against the government, although final approval could take months.

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